For better or for worse, automation is going to have an affect on specific jobs in Houston. Getty Images

A new report from UpSkill Houston, a workforce initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership, puts the implications of workplace automation into stark focus. According to the report, more than 50 percent of middle-skill jobs in the Houston area face a higher-than-average risk of being upset by automation.

Peter Beard, who leads UpSkill Houston and is senior vice president for workforce development at the Greater Houston Partnership, says this means technology will "get embedded even more in the workplace than it's ever been before. … People's jobs will change because they have to work alongside technology. And there will be some jobs that get displaced because of that technology."

"Robots are coming," he adds, "but they're not going to replace us. We're going to have to figure out how to work beside them."

Middle-skill jobs require less than a four-year bachelor's degree but more than a high school diploma. In other words, jobs fitting into this middle ground might demand a two-year associate's degree or a training certificate from a technical school.

The report, released July 16, points out that middle-skill occupations in manufacturing and construction, for instance, face a high risk of disruption as companies adopt technologies that automate tasks, such as prefabrication of building materials. By contrast, the report notes, automation places jobs in the health care and service sectors in far less jeopardy because they generally rely on tasks that can't easily be automated. For example, jobs in health care often require social skills that can't be replicated through automation, which includes artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning.

However, jobs in health care aren't entirely immune from shifts in the workplace. The report indicates jobs in workforce segments like health care, sales and office support, IT, management, and drafting now require a medium or high level of digital skills.

That being said, all workers — regardless of their industry, occupation, or education — must embrace solid digital skills in order to succeed in the workforce, the report states. Beard says that to compete in today's workforce, a high school graduate must be proficient in Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs as well as in a customer relationship management platform like Salesforce.

The findings in the UpSkill Houston report come at a pivotal time for the Houston economy, given the job-slashing double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and the oil slump. The pandemic "has accelerated and accentuated a fundamental change that has been underway — a change in the education and skills needed to be successful in the workforce today and into the future," the report states.

That change poses particular challenges for low-skill and middle-skill workers in the Houston area, according to the report. The report recommends that workforce development stakeholders, including employers, schools, and community organizations, build a regional "framework" aimed at ramping up skillsets so workers can seize increasingly elevated career opportunities.

"It all starts with the employer. The employer is in the best position to know what skills they need today and what skills they are likely to need tomorrow," Beard says. "Fundamentally, we're trying to create a supply chain of talent that meets the needs of our economy and the needs of our employers."

But that takes employers collaborating with schools to ensure those skills are being taught, he says, and employers and schools motivating students to consider jobs that incorporate those skills.

Beard assigns those skills to four categories:

  • Technical skills
  • Digital skills
  • Soft skills, such as communication
  • Problem-solving skills

"This whole push we've had that everyone should go to college and get a four-year degree has made folks consider jobs that don't require a four-year college degree to be menial," Beard says. "That same mentality has also permeated the employers. How many job descriptions have we seen that put a four-year degree requirement on them but that don't require four years of college education?"

We're living in the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Now is the time to expand machine learning, says Houston researcher

Houston voices

One might not expect the game of checkers to have anything to do with artificial intelligence, but the game really marked the beginning of machine learning in 1959. Pioneered by an MIT professor named Arthur Lee Samuel, it was discovered that teaching a simple strategy game to a computer is not so simple when every move needs to be anticipated.

Smart machines Additionally, in a Forbes article about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, Bernard Marr comments, "Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider 'smart'. And, machine learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves."

That's the premise of many a movie involving computers which become sentient, but is it really science fiction anymore?

Meet the new boss

Teaching a computer to think like a human is advantageous and includes the added bonus of increased speed. Computers aren't biased, either — which is why huge corporations, such as Unilever, use computers to thin out their first wave of applicants. You actually interview with a bot when you begin the employment process there.

Cause and effect AI and ML are often used in cybersecurity efforts — at least one would suppose. But in Security magazine, Jordan Mauriello writes: "AI/ML cannot do causation." That means artificial intelligence cannot, at this point in time, tell you why something happened. The why? is best left to experts who deal with game theory and other ways of determining how to defend against hypothetical attacks.

Get in on the ground floor

The field is growing and students at colleges across the country are beginning to train for careers in it in droves.

"America's top colleges are ramping up their research efforts and developing concentrations for their computer science degree programs to accommodate this high-tech field," writes Great Value Colleges on their blog. It looks as though this discipline is on an upward trajectory and shows no sign of slowing down.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston's DataCon can help prepare business leaders for the digital revolution in AI and machine learning. Getty Images

Houston companies need to get ready for an artificial intelligence and machine learning revolution

The future is now

Looming on the horizon is a data tsunami coming towards us at breakneck speed. Companies have worked hard to keep up, creating digital transformation, taking manual processes from desktops, clipboards, and the paper paradigm to the Cloud. We're now sitting on huge quantities of idle bits of information called dark data. It's over collected and unused data that has the potential power to create decision-making brilliance.

Business leaders are attempting to optimize siloed data – unrelated data collected in databases and spreadsheets or obsolete apps, to make critical decisions. We currently connect these siloes with other systems using a data processing step called ETL – Extract, Transform and Load. Take the data from one place, transform it so it can relate to another data resource and then load that data to another place for analysis. It's a big, time consuming, intermediary step we have figured out how to circumvent. "NoETL" technology is the next-generation magic wand of machine thinking and it's a game-changer.

As non-technical business leaders, we rely on our partners in IT to give us meaningful data that charts our course. They've been our faithful navigators. We've made the recommended investment in IT infrastructure and technology and counted on receiving analytics that will result in winning outcomes. It's now time to sit down at the table and have new conversations with IT leadership around AI.

A tectonic shift

We are now in a new place. AI has come upon us quickly and the promise of ROI is great. There are new technologies that give business leaders advantages never before realized. Data science is the new crystal ball to the future of business. Automation and machine learning are taking historical data to a look ahead using algorithms and mathematical modeling. It's a new predictive mindset. What business leader wouldn't want that crystal ball?

The real assets of your business exist not in better machines but in your current data stores which are like coal mines waiting for data science to turn those lumps of coal into data diamonds.

There are new vocabulary words associated with data analytics. Data science thought leaders are preparing the way for businesses to have learning opportunities and to know which resources to tap for direction in creating new competitive dynamics. Don't wait too long to be curious. The early adopters are already a step ahead and the competitive marketplace is changing in unexpected ways.

Leadership resources for the implementation of AI

Legacy businesses with data lakes are ripe for action. Who should lead the charge? It's up to the C-suite to have intentional conversations around data science. It's up to leadership to be ready to speak and understand new concepts and vocabulary combined with leaps of faith needed to join the new world order of information.

Learning resources 

Proactively look for learning opportunities. There are no excuses for not taking the initiative. No matter where you are in your career – this isn't something to linger about.

One upcoming seminar around AI and automation collaboration and education is DataCon Houston. It's an annual conference that brings important concepts around AI and Automation to business leaders. The target audience is not IT professionals, although there will be some in attendance; it's meant primarily to help the C-suite and non-technical leaders know where to begin and where to find that new vocabulary and translative resources. AI will affect every person in every business, and we must be ready for the cultural shifts that will come with the technological shifts.

Authors and thought leaders — George Danner, Dave McComb, and Gerald Kane will be speaking at DataCon October 10, 2019. In addition, Javier Fadul, director of innovation for HTX Labs will be speaking about XR and data visualization and its use in training employees and creating safer workplaces. Stefanos Damianakis will be teaching machine learning 101 and Juan Sequeda, principal scientist of data.world will present his UltraWrap NoETL patented technology.

Solving the unsolvable

The future of decision-making will render in blinks of an eye. Problems we thought unsolvable will suddenly have answers. Business leaders must get behind the leap of faith required for our own companies and push learning and understanding forward across the organization at all levels. AI and machine learning are the vortex of change. Are you ready for AI?

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Suzette Cotto is CEO of Innovate Social Media, a digital marketing agency specializing marketing for startups in the medical, technology, and energy industries. For more information on DataCon Houston 2019, please visit: https://incitelogix.com/datacon-houston-2019/

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Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

Now's the time to find innovation opportunities in a trustless world, says this Houston expert

guest column

Hidden beneath all the recent events in the technology work, stock market, political landscape, and most of the social problems we see today lies one underlying trend. A trend so powerful that it's causing disruption in nearly every institution out there, and changing the business landscape faster than anyone can keep up.

Trust is gone. I mean completely gone.

At this point, the examples of this are too numerous to list but let's look at the past several months in the United States. In that short period, we saw an incredibly contentious election process, big tech disable the primary communication of a world leader, a mass exodus do decentralized messaging, an explosion in the defi industry and crypto, and a once promising vaccine process somehow not be effective despite being the primary conversation topic for everyone.

And this was all before a bunch of social media users treated the world's greatest stock market like a game, and far after we saw a country divided into two by racial movements, and we have yet to even get to things such as the Russian hacks.

We're left with an absolute mess of a situation where every social contract seems to be broken and the default response to any sort of central authority is being reevaluated. Without doubt we'll eventually figure out some great long-term answers, but at the speed at which the business world works today, it's going to be messy.

Luckily, mess creates opportunity and within all this disruption lies many golden nuggets of opportunity. The last twelve months was likely a watershed moment in key areas and as innovators, and business people — and it's our job to find them. It's what we signed up for and, for many of us, why we do what we do.

If there was ever a time to invest heavily in innovative technologies, today is it. Most of the time businesses are very resistant to change. Their default answer is always "no," and this puts innovators in a constant search of early adopters. But today, we see a different landscape. Businesses of all sizes and industries have been tossed around like a toy ship in an ocean. They do not know which way is up and business as usual seems like an old campfire story. Everyone, everywhere is looking for creative ideas to improve their business, and creative ideas is at the heart of true entrepreneurship and innovation.

Within this disruption also lies a few other key support pillars that should benefit all innovative minded individuals.

  • Despite terrible economic conditions, those invested in tech over the past year have done incredibly well. These individuals should be primed to reinvest their profits into bigger wins.
  • The workforce is truly global, and people are scrambling. The ideas of location being an advantage to hiring is truly disappearing. This means talent acquisition costs are falling through the floor and availability through the ceiling.
  • Consumers and businesses alike have been introduced to new technology so the legwork of explaining things such as defi and blockchain is much easier. It's also easy to find numerous use cases for anything involving proximity, health, privacy, and security.
  • The new administration will be eager to find wins, and invest money in different technologies than the previous. No matter what you think politically about this strategy, the reality is that areas such as healthcare, education, and will offer innovation opportunities. Even regulation itself, which we are likely to see increased, can be a great playground for innovation.

Twenty years ago, the way that business was done is unrecognizable in some industries. Many of the successful business today did not even exist then. Technology has a tendency to change things exponentially so imagine what the next ten years will look like. What are we not seeing today that will be the new business as usual?

The future is ours to create

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Cody Caillet is the founder at Gulf Coast Solutions, a Houston-based technology firm with speed-to-value approach in delivering business technology to impact top-line and bottom-line numbers for a business.

These 3 Houston researchers are revolutionizing health science innovation

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.